The wine doctor

Dr Andrew Markides talks to Neos Kosmos about winemaking: the art, the science, the balance

Dr Andrew Markides has a certain philosophy in life, that you don’t plan anything in concrete.

Back when he was first studying at the University of New South Wales, Markides found his way into the area of microbiology.

“I thought I better do something a bit different and I didn’t really know what microbiology was but it sounded good,” he recalls. With an interest in biology, the area of microbiology- which is the study of bugs, microbes, bacteria, mould and anything you have to look at under a microscope- seemed to make sense to Markides.

“I was pretty open to everything, my PhD was on studying Aerotolerant yeast, yeast that grow in very low water environments, or very high concentrated sugar environments and of course winemaking involves yeast and sugar so moving into that area seemed to fit okay,” he says.

As he approached the end of his PhD a fellow student dared him to apply for a job in Wagga Wagga. “I did, and the next thing you know I’m in the wine microbiology business,” Markides says. Having worked as a teaching fellow at the University of NSW once his PhD was complete, Markides secured a job at Charles Sturt University and moved from applied microbiology to wine microbiology, where he worked for ten years.

In 1987, Markides joined Roseworthy Agriculture / University of Adelaide where as a Principal Lecturer in Wine Microbiology and Oenology he taught and supervised research at all academic levels to that of PhD. “I was the last appointed dean at the faculty of wine. I liked to spend about ten years in each job, that’s sort of my plan, so it was an opportune move,” Markides says. “That provided more opportunities to do research and also to link research outcomes to wine making applications,” he says.

To simplify the science of Markides’ work is to focus on the role yeast plays in the fermentation process. “You take yeast, put it in grape juice and it has a problem. The problem is the PH of the grape juice is too low for the yeast to function so yeast has to increase its inner self to a higher PH to become live and active and make wine,” Markides explains. In teaching this to students, Markides says he didn’t follow a prescriptive approach.

“My philosophy in teaching wasn’t to teach, but effectively to encourage students to learn more, to open their eyes and make them appreciate the value of the topic they’re learning so they become self motivated to learn more about the topic,” he says. After spending 30 years in academia, Markides joined the Montreal based company Lallemand in 2001. While the company initially focused on creating bakers yeast in the 70s it expanded to high quality specialised yeasts including an oenology product line to assist in the winemaking process.

Moving from academia to a private corporation has not been a huge shift, Markides insists. “It’s just an extension from my point of view, I still interface with a lot of winemakers in the industry, I rub shoulders with a lot of researchers all round the world. Lallemand sends me to South America, to Italy, to France, to Germany, last month I was in Dubrovnik in Croatia, and it’s just absolutely great,” he says.

“The main thing is the way you approach it, you have to enjoy what you do and that’s exactly what I do.” While Markides misses teaching and interacting with students, he says a learning environment can be created in any area. “I’ve got my staff here to motivate, I’ve got my children and my grandson now. I’m still interfacing with and helping winemakers that come to me from around the world,” he says.

The evolution of winemaking has seen the industry and the market grow significantly, Markides says. “In Australia, up until the second World War we were mainly focused on fortified wines because we could ship them out to the UK without them going off, because they were higher in alcohol. Then after the second World War, families like my own immigrated from Europe to Australia and people started showing interest in table wine and we started making table wine. Then we discovered varietals, that Riesling tastes different from Chardonnay, Cabernet tastes different from Shiraz,” Markides explains. “We, as an industry, were very technically focused and developed very strong understandings of the different grape varieties. We’ve explored the potential of oak, and it’s only now that we’re beginning to understand the impact of the fermentation process on quality of wine”.

While yeast was previously viewed simply for its purpose of fermenting sugar to alcohol, now winemakers are increasingly conscious about its role in affecting the final taste and quality of their product, Markides says. “What we’re doing now is we’re moving from solving problems of just sugar to alcohol fermentation to ‘I want a yeast that will help me enhance the varietal character of my Chardonnay and fullness in the mid palate’,” Markides says. Wine drinkers demand a higher quality from the product now more than ever, he says.

“People are a lot more discerning and we’ve got quite a big range of wine consumers,” he says. “Essentially the best wine is the wine you like to drink. There’s no one way of making wine. There’s a science with the art and it’s the balance that we’re focused on; that’s what’s so exciting.”